The evolution of the male nude goes back as far as human history does. For the next two weeks, we will be talking about nudity, whether male or female. This week, we are going to focus on the male nude by focusing on three artists: Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767 – 1824), Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) and Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989).
From Antiquity to the Renaissance
The human body, whether male or female, has always been at the very centre of representations. The Minoans, Mycenaeans, the Greeks, the Romans have all represented both female and male bodies. The male nudes were idealized since they represented Gods or powerful men like soldiers. Sometimes, the commissioners ordered the artists to represent them is an idealized manner. Otherwise, the male nude was the means to mathematically perfect representations of the human body. The Apollo Belvedere is a great example of that!
During the Middle Ages, there were few nude representations. Only a few figures could show a naked body. Adam and Eve, the figure of the sinner and the Christ on crucifixions. Some of the best crucifixions are by Masaccio, Donatello or Brunelleschi, towards the end of the XIV century. The depiction of male nudes for purely aesthetic purposes did not appear until the Renaissance. The Renaissance was the rediscovery of Greek and Roman treasures, like the sculptures or the myths. But it was also the rediscovery of Polykeitos’ Canon, that states the perfect dimensions of a human body.
But we must not confuse nude and nudity. Nudity is the fact of being naked. The nude is the representation of the naked body according to the artist’s viewpoint. This notion is very important for what comes next, but also for next week’s article (stay tuned!).
Today, we are going to look at how the depiction of the masculine body evolved. From being related to historical events and using masculinity as to show power, to more sexualized representations with a focus on exacerbated beauty.
The male nude by Girodet
In Greek mythology, Endymion is the most beautiful mortal. Here, Diana – painted as the moon – is visiting the mortal with the help of Zephyr who is parting the foliage as to let Diana’s light come through. Endymion’s body is painted according to the antique canons. But the moon rays give him the look of a young ephebe, sensually caressed by the Goddess of the Moon.
The nude according to David
Girodet was the pupil of Jacques-Louis David, the neoclassicist painter. The latter focused on the perfect measurements of the body. The Male Academy of Hector shows the artist’s focus on the effects of light. This, as to exacerbate the perfect depiction of the body itself, rather than on the fact that Hector is wounded and in pain. It creates an unnatural effect but shows a perfectly painted male nude, from the toes to the muscles of Hector’s right arm.
Girodet wanted to “do something new”. His Sleep of Endymion is not a scene in which the body can be magnified. It is a love scene in which man in is a weak position, so to say a sentimental position hat would unavoidably lead to a sentimental representation. Endymion is in a sensual position, with his right hand falling behind his head. Here, Girodet foreshadowed the work of the Symbolists who placed man in a weak position when confronted to the manipulative femme fatale.
But Girodet did not focus on the body itself. He also focused on the entire scene. David’s Hector focuses on the academic representation of the body, there is no precise background to the painting. Girodet, however, painted how the nude fits and reacts to a particular background and staging. Moreover, the painter’s way of depicting Endymion resembles that of the Mannerists.
Michelangelo’s male nude
Let’s look at Michelangelo’s Dying Slave. Both figures have their arm behind their heads. The contrapposto in Michelangelo’s standing sculpture is also present in the lying figure by Girodet. Additionally, both figures are in very precious positions. The slave is dying and yet, there is almost a sexual tension present in the sculpture. The same goes for Endymion who, supposedly asleep, lies in a very precious position. That position enhances the beautiful aspect of his body, if not its sensuality.
Indeed, both the slave and Endymion are very sensual. Endymion is leaning towards a feminine sensuality since we can also compare it to Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus.
A feminine male nude
Once again, the positions of the two bodies are very similar. The main difference lies in the fact that Giorgione’s Venus hides her sex. This highlights an important aspect of Girodet’s work: femininity in the representation of a male character. We can suppose that he chose to do so so that the focus is on the story rather than on the nude. A way to hide academic imperfections? Or a statement towards the academic representations? I’ll let you answer these questions.
Now, let’s move on to another sculptor, whose work will remind you of Michelangelo’s slave.
The Male Nude by Auguste Rodin
Rodin conceived the Age of Bronze in 1876. It was cast in 1907. When Rodin first exhibited this work, it was entitled The Awakening Man. A direct reference to Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistine Chapel. By doing so, Rodin linked himself directly to the work of his Renaissance predecessor. However, if Michelangelo believed that God invested his sculptures with His spirit, Rodin focused on psychological intensity.
Rodin’s work is based on a real-life model, a soldier who was modelling for the first time. This makes Rodin’s sculpture more naturalistic than that of Michelangelo. The focus is on the movement of the arms and is a very personal statement. The Age of Bronze refers directly to Ovid’s four ages of mankind (golden, silver, bronze and iron). It was also a way for Rodin to announce that his following works would be in bronze. Indeed, this sculpture led to accusations towards Rodin stating that he over-moulded the body of his model. And The Age of Bronze was Rodin’s first success despite the accusations.
We must also look at the French title of the work, L’âge d’Airin. “Airin” was the transitional material before bronze. Rodin wanted to enhance the moment when Man had just shifted from the use of stone tools to metal tools. Additionally, the diffuse energy that spans the sculpture evokes the painful awakening of individual conscience, a reference to Rousseau’s Speech on the Origins of inequalities. There is a strong idea of metamorphosis, as well as for humankind as for the artist in the maturation of his thoughts and beliefs. In opposition to the Endymion by Girodet, whose figure is static and unnatural, Rodin’s model is posing naturally and is overwhelmed by movement.
The male nude by Mapplethorpe
It is in the 1970/80s, with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, that is the epitome focus on the exacerbated beauty of the male nude. The public often reduces Mapplethorpe’s work to pornographic or sadomasochist images. Yet, the photographer has managed to enhance the sublime of the masculine body through sculpture-like photographs influenced by Ancient statues. He is “the heir of the Renaissance”, “a classical sculptor who worked with the means of his time – photography.” (Arnaud Laporte). Indeed, the bodies in his pictures are marmoreal.
Mapplethorpe lived in the seventies New-York. The 70s had been a decade of great personal and artistic development for him. In parallel, the black and gay communities were growing in self-confidence, yet still taboo. As a gay photographer with HIV, Mapplethorpe’s love for the male figure went beyond aesthetic purposes. In the picture, the model is posing in a very athletic posture which recalls that of the Discobole Lancellotti.
References to Antiques, the modern “heir of the Renaissance”
The focus is on the effects of the physical effort on the muscles of the body. In both there is a strong tension that highlights the muscles of the arms, legs and abdominals. Moreover, Mapplethorpe chose a model which had a highly muscular physique that can really recall that of the Antique Statues. However, by choosing a black model, he emancipated himself from the classical perspective and way of thinking, by glorifying this black dancer.
His minimalistic style, that can be found in other pictures such as Charles Bowman / torso, allows him to play with the human body, previously considered as a sculpture and here given more life as, in this photograph, the torso becomes a face: the two nipples are the eyes, the navel the nose.
His model has his arms raised, suggesting perhaps support to the Black Power Movement of the 1960s.
The influence of sculpture is omnipresent in his photographic work. He also photographed sculptures, working on the staging, the perfection of the contour lines. Mapplethorpe stated that sculpture, painting and photography were the same in terms of energy.
Contemporary Male Nudes, more naturalistic nudes
Until the XX century, male nudes sublimated the masculine figure. Whether for political, social or aesthetic purposes, the works I have shown until now showed the positive aspects of masculinity. But in the meantime, men painted women as to show negative aspects of their personality. They painted women in their beauty but also in what they considered their faults. But we will talk about that next week.
During the XX century, artists started showing what it was to be a man. And that was not being perfect, strong both in mind and physique. It was being a tortured artist. Being homosexual. It was being thin, fat, strong and weak.
Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918)
Egon Schiele did not want to focus on his body, but on the tortured aspect of his life as an artist.
We can feel the pain. He is in a complex position, his eyes are red. His arms seem to imprison his mouth or trying to tear his head off as if the artist’s mind was too difficult to bear with.
Schiele was one of the few artists yet who had not depicted his body as to bring its beauty to the fore. He did not show beauty or qualities of manhood, but painted himself naked, prey to all his weaknesses.
Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011)
Lucian Freud has a different approach. He used his own nudity how the painter’s creative process and the resulting pieces are a way for him to show his bare soul and mind.
Moreover, Freud’s male nudes are – in opposition to the majority of male nudes seen until now, and in general – without the intention of glorifying masculinity. They also tend to show man’s weaknesses, as it can be understood in Naked man on a bed, painted in 1987. The man is in a fetal position, a coming back to one of the very first states of a man’s life, and a state in which man is at its weakest as he depends on his mother. By choosing such a position for his model, the painter opposed himself to nearly every prior work done on male nudes. Indeed, male nudes have always had the intention of glorifying the stronger sex.
Whether for mythological, political, or purely aesthetical representations, most of the male nudes were destined to depict moments of great psychological intensity leading to victorious events (always as to show the strength of man), or only to enhance the beauty of the body itself. Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud are perhaps the only examples of painters whose male nudes do not have such an intention.
Male nudes and sexuality
Finally, by the end of the XX century, artists started including eroticism and sexuality to their works on the male nude. Until then, only women were associated with such themes. But the development of the gay community in the US and the growth of HIV victims led artists like Mapplethorpe or Keith Haring to talk about these still taboo subjects.
In the 1970s, homosexuals were given medical treatment to cure them of their unnatural desires. They also faced neuroscientific experiments, most of the time violent ones. They were given female hormones that sometimes resulted in the growth of breast amongst other consequences. Mapplethorpe photographed homosexual practices. By doing so, he showed an aspect of masculinity that had always existed. Pompei frescoes show erotic representations of homosexual practices, whether among men or women. But these practices were not tolerated by our contemporary society.
However, in the 1980s an increasing awareness concerning sexually transmitted diseases started to appear. Most particularly regarding the HIV virus which lingered amongst gay communities. The works of Keith Haring, who, just like Robert Mapplethorpe was infected with HIV, aimed at raising awareness against that infection.
The Male Nude…
Until the second half of the XX century, male nudes were glorifying. They showed men’s intelligence, men’s strength. They made the public and themselves believe they were invincible. The only representations that had more sensibility were mythological scenes. The 1960/70s were a turning point for the subject. Artists did not want to exalt men anymore, they did not want to belittle women anymore. New matters appeared in society, and thus in art history. Artists showed their humanity, their weaknesses as well as their strength. Thus, the development of the subject of the male nude reflects a historical sociological aspect that is that of the masculine domination as a symbol of strength, beauty, intelligence and power. However, contemporary works show that the mid-twentieth century was the stage to the beginning of a shift in the artists’ mindsets and subjects regarding their perception, as artists, on the nudity of men.
Stay tuned for next week’s article on the female nude… with a special guest!